Press Release

Dave Quinn: Aspiring to Become “Scotty” at NASA

By SpaceRef Editor
July 17, 2018
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Dave Quinn grew up in northern New Jersey. When he was 4 years old, his parents took the family to the ’64 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, New York, where he saw a display of what future life could look like and thought it looked intensely cool. Later, while in third grade when the book mobile came to town he saw that same display on the cover of Kenneth K. Goldstein’s “The World of Tomorrow,” which he immediately bought.

“It was then that I fell in love with the future,” he said. Quinn is an SSMO mission director at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

At the time, the Gemini and Apollo programs were all over the news, and Quinn was fascinated by the notion of space travel. Then along came Star Trek. “Apollo showed me the beginnings of space travel, Star Trek showed me where it could ultimately lead,” he said. I was hooked.”

“When it comes to Star Trek, most kids I knew of wanted to be Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock,” Quinn said. (Some of them also now work here, at Goddard.) “There are plenty of others here far more entitled to the nickname ‘Goddard’s Scotty,’ but as a kid I always wanted to be like Scotty: the guy with the answers, who actually gets in there and fixes the mechanical problems.”

He learned all he could about science and technology and eventually got a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland. After graduating in 1984, he was thrilled to start working as an engineer at Goddard.

Quinn started as a contractor by sitting console for Landsats 4 and 5, Earth-observing satellites launched in the 1980s. He eventually became the project’s lead engineer for attitude and orbit. Five years later, he joined the civil service to become the Pointing Control System lead for the Hubble Space Telescope a year before its 1990 launch. He saw Hubble through launch, deployment and the first servicing mission in 1993 before moving on to Landsat 7 as the attitude control system lead.

He then worked on a number of other projects while pursuing his mechanical engineering master’s degree from George Washington University, in time inventing a now-patented, GPS-based means of attitude control while developing the mathematics behind the formation flying experiment executed between Landsat 7 and Earth Observing-1, the first Goddard spacecraft to employ GPS as the main source of on-board navigation data.

Currently Quinn employs his operations experience as one of several SSMO mission directors, and as such is responsible for four projects: TIMED (Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics); STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory); MMS (Magnetospheric Multiscale mission); and the joint NASA/ESA (European Space Agency) SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) project.

Quinn said he hopes to have a chance at being the eventual mission director for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). TESS launched in April on a mission to look for planets, potentially even Earth-like ones, circling stars other than our Sun. “TESS actually has the potential to help discover life on another planet outside our solar system!” Quinn said. “If I could be even a small part of such a monumental discovery, it would be a perfect crescendo to a long career.”

“As a young man, I was drawn to Star Trek’s optimistic view of the future best expressed contemporarily in the real world by NASA,” Quinn said.  “Although Scotty lived on board the ship he was taking care of, we operate many of our ships, or satellites, remotely, but I imagine the feeling to be much the same,” Quinn said. “I get to work with some of the smartest people on the planet to fix complex problems never encountered before, often in real time, using innovative solutions that can help make that fictional future a positive reality.”

The original Star Trek aired in the late 1960s, 79 episodes over three seasons (80, if you count the unaired pilot, Quinn is quick to point out). Quinn boasts knowing by heart the titles of each episode, and most of the names of the scriptwriters. As a kid, Quinn said he virtually memorized every single episode line by line. He went to his first Star Trek convention in 1974 in New York City, where he met Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Enterprise Communications Officer Lt. Uhura on the show. Inspired, he started collecting Star Trek memorabilia. Some of the literal thousands of pieces in his collection are displayed in his Goddard office.

“On any job, you have good days and bad,” Quinn said. “My office constantly reminds me why I got into this business and helps me keep focused on the optimism that steered me here to begin with. We get to do some pretty cool stuff here. I have the luxury of loving what I do. I don’t ever want to forget that or take that luxury for granted.” Quinn said he felt honored to learn that when Rick Sternback (one of the art directors for Star Trek) visited Goddard in 2016, his office was part of the tour. Quinn said he would have loved showing Sternback his office personally, but in the best tradition of Starfleet, duty (in the form of a spacecraft emergency) kept him away.

“My favorite episode is by far, Norman Spinrad’s ‘The Doomsday Machine,’ where Scotty ultimately saves the day with some trademark engineering miracle work. “When I participate in the resolution to a difficult spacecraft problem in real time, I always feel a little closer to that irascible engineer,” Quinn said.

“I have never called into a team meeting using my favorite collection piece, a studio-accurate replica of a communicator, but there’s plenty of time for that,” Quinn said. “While I would never want to get into a transporter myself, I’m always ready for someone to say, ‘Beam me up!’”

SpaceRef staff editor.